Get out of crisis mode

May 16, 2016 · 4 min read

I was in a meeting once when an employee made the painfully acute statement that “we’ve gotten really good at fire drills but we don’t know how to operate in non-fire drill mode.” Of course, we used the term “fire drill” to mean an actual (if not literal) fire. We weren’t drilling for emergencies but finding ourselves in emergencies and hosing everything down.

I dated a woman who worked in Hollywood as a costumer and make-up artist. Her job was brutal: constant, shifting ASAP demands; unreasonable bosses and clients; horrible hours; no social life. She’d gone to art school and one Christmas, she and my brother (another art school grad) chatted about their jobs and how art school prepared them. I asked if art school taught them process or if everything was a perpetual crisis. They agreed: art school functioned only in crisis mode.

Not only do we accept crisis mode at our jobs but we teach it in school. Anton Chekhov, the playwright, famously said, “Any idiot can face a crisis.” He’s absolutely correct. When crisis strikes, we step up; we cover each other; we adapt. We do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do because we think it’s a one-time fix.

Whether it is art school, carpentry, or product marketing, crisis mode undermines good work. It is a dangerous mode with many potential points of extreme failure.

Crisis mode prevents us from putting process in place. And because all process gets thrown out the window in a crisis, process begins to seem superfluous. But process is necessary to provide accountability and reduce error.

Aristotle said, “We are repeatedly what we do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Constant crises prevent us from developing good work habits. Then, crises cause more errors when we shift to non-crisis mode because we’ve never followed a process. There are no good habits to fall back on. Additionally, non-crisis scenarios ratchet up to crisis mode when an unpracticed process hits a speed bump. We watch this scenario play out when a crisis-battered launch goes well and a quiet, small launch goes awry. When we can’t launch anything in an orderly fashion, we’ve become too accustomed to crisis mode.

Crisis mode says, “let’s accept the complicated way we’re going to run this” and implies “for now” as though the crisis will end. It is the antithesis of being good, simple, and open. It intentionally forsakes those values for the false promise that the crisis is temporary. Because of this, it is more dishonest than a fully bad, complex, and closed business. Like all other complex systems, it aims to deceive.

It is important to recognize that crisis mode is another negative by-product of a closed and complex system. It is an unintended consequence but it is an avoidable consequence.

Good, simple, and open attitudes combat crisis mode. If good is our goal and simple is our means, we do not accept temporary complication. Engineering didn’t send us the right cables to photograph? We’ll delay until they do because this will make things increasingly more expensive if we spend hours photoshopping them to look correct. When we are open to iterate and insist on a simple process, we don’t take on unnecessary risk.

Launches are always stressful. They are always critical. But they need not be a crisis. When things start failing during the checklist for a space launch or an airplane flight, the pilots do not struggle on and “make it work.” They delay the launch.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be in a real crisis that required police, fire departments, or emergency medical technicians, you’ve noticed that they don’t act as if it’s a crisis. Those professionals are measured, calm, and firm in their expertise. Sometimes it’s frustrating if you’re the one who needs attention. You want the EMTs to act a little more excited about your emergency. But emergency professionals don’t work in crisis mode because if they did, they’d kill people. Real crisis requires real calm.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the professional world, we act like not launching a product at an arbitrary time set by an executive will result in catastrophe. It won’t, but treating it that way will. The “hacks” that we do to meet deadlines create more points of failure that we probably won’t be able to fix later. Worse than that, crisis mode is detrimental to our physical health and our mental sanity. It wears us out to pump adrenaline and caffeine through our systems just to launch a website at midnight.

One of my bosses had two priorities for our work which I greatly admire:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Optimize incrementally

These two directives simplify our attitude so well. If “do no harm” is our first directive, half-assedly hacking a website to launch “on time” defies it. So we delay launch. Likewise, “optimize incrementally” requires that we think of the iteration at hand. We do not try to optimize or launch everything all at once. We fulfill requirements. We remain open to change.

We need to stop endangering our business and our employees’ health by running in crisis mode. It increases risk every minute we do it. And it assures that we won’t ever get to do good, lasting work. is a book about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. It is only $5 on Kindle, or $10 in paperback.

Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. Stories about the bad work that is complex and closed.


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I write about work, belief, music, and the politics of superheroes. Support my books and music at

Stories about doing better work by focusing on simplicity and openness. Stories about the bad work that is complex and closed.